The new law on “undesirable organizations” is just the latest attempt by the Kremlin to limit the activities of foreign NGOs on Russian soil. Some even warn that the law may be an attempt to prevent a color revolution in 2016.


Activists hold placards outside the office of election monitoring NGO Golos (Voice), during a protest against the organisation's foreign relations, April 5, 2013. Photo: Reuters

The recently passed law on “undesirable organizations” has already resulted in harsh criticism on the part of the international community. The new law may already be on the path to taking down its first victims. Recently, a parliamentarian from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s controversial Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) urged the Office of the Prosecutor General to inspect the activities of a number of NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, the Carnegie Moscow Center and Memorial.

So how did we end up here and how will such legislation affect Russia’s global image?

The new law is aimed at filling the vacuum created by the law on “foreign agents.” The latter was mostly directed against Russian NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are involved in “politics,” whatever vague meaning is behind this term.

However, this law on foreign agents created a certain amount of legal wiggle room, as the branches of international NGOs did not fall under the definition of “foreign agents” and could easily continue their activities in Russia. Therefore, to fill this hidden gap, the Russian authorities concocted a bill that would prevent political activities, especially those that - according to the Kremlin - could undermine the country’s constitutional regime.

Hence, the adoption of the law on “undesirable organizations” is a logical step forward in the attempts by the Kremlin to segregate civil society into political and non-political activities, giving evident preference to the latter. The so-called presidential grants for NGOs, the amount of which grows every year, as well as stable government support of socially-oriented NGOs (replacing or augmenting the state in fulfilling various social missions) is a sort of carrot, while the heavy stick is the law that kicks NGOs out of politics, advocacy and election activities.

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Another trend that is reflected in the law is Russia’s increasing disappointment with the work of international organizations. It is clear that their activities do not improve Moscow’s image abroad. In addition, they raise critical voices against the Kremlin within the Russian public and media. In most cases, Russia perceives these NGOs as working to portray the country as underdeveloped, requiring international assistance, funding and mentoring.

Therefore, as the state was rising from its knees, it needed less and less foreign involvement, which was regarded by the Kremlin as interference in sovereign affairs. So, Russia has been recently curbing international aid programs existing on its territory and the activities of international organizations. Unfortunately, “undesirable organizations” fall into this process.

Generally speaking, Moscow hates to be criticized from abroad (as most of such criticism seems biased) and is fond of introducing its own national rankings and writing white papers about various violations in the “civilized world.”

Finally, the authorities have become even more cautious about the international activities on Russian territory after the imposition of sanctions and the gradual transformation of the country into a bastion under siege. Amidst all this, the Russian security services probably believe that there will be a sharp increase in their intelligence work, unveiling more and more secret agents from different states. And there is a widespread (and deep-rooted) belief in Russia that the easiest way to penetrate the country is through the humanitarian sphere, and this brings about suspicion towards international advocacy NGOs.

The phobia becomes even greater as Russia approaches a new political cycle. Some representatives of Russia’s political elites, probably, assume that the 2016 parliamentary elections in the State Duma may be a lucrative target for attempts at regime change.

Moscow looks back at its experience from 2011 and does not want to see this experience repeated. Thus, it is cleaning the field of any seeds for a “color revolution” one year ahead of time. The story of Ukraine with its quick collapse of the regime under direct backing from the West along with some recent examples (such as the current civil unrest in Macedonia, or the umbrella protests in Hong Kong) only solidify the Kremlin in its opinion.

Some may regard it as a sort of paranoia, but Moscow has its own comprehensive vision, building up the puzzle from the facts that it observes around the globe. Such steps and a persistent policy of intimidating any undesirable behavior will certainly add more negative traits to the current Russian image. However, the Kremlin cares less about its image internationally, as it is already bad enough.

Meanwhile, at home the witch-hunt gets the full approval of the general public, which shares the conspiracy theories of the elite. So, such efforts enable Moscow to gain extra political dividends, to accomplish the practical task of strengthening the existing regime and to maneuver with small-scale liberalization, if necessary, a step that can be depicted as a stride forward when and if needed.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.